Last month I mused here about whether a 128 GB iPad makes sense, and if so for whom. Some have taken to calling the 128 GB model Apple’s “iPad Pro,” but doubling the maximum storage capacity doesn’t come remotely close to qualifying the iPad as a seriously capable production platform for users who need to get real work done as efficiently as possible.
The iPad’s deficiencies as a “professional grade” machine are manifold. The 128 GB model has addressed one of them, but didn’t touch the clumsy, often hair-tearingly frustrating text cut/copy/paste; lack of real multitasking, screen refresh lag on switching applications; no ability to display multiple apps or multiple open windows in the same app on the same screen so you can’t drag and drop stuff from one window to another, no document level file system access; no multi-user support, limited graphics handling capability for such things as saving images in different file formats; no means of taking partial page screenshots; cumbersome review and retrieval from large image archives; only minimal efficiency-enhancing automation capabilities of the sort provided by AppleScript and Automator in OS X; no standard USB port for low hassle connectivity; no expansion slots. I could go on.
So what would it take to qualify the iPad as legitimately professional grade? The most important element would be a thorough overhaul of the iOS, which of course started out as a mobile phone operating system, to incorporate more OS X-like features and functionality. If you look through the list of inhibiting factors in the preceding paragraph, most of them need to be addressed with software upgrading rather than reflecting deficiencies in the iPad hardware, USB connectivity being an exception. Commenting MacStories’ Federico Viticci comments thinks serious professional grade will require a deep reworking of iOS to accommodate users who may need switch jump among seven apps to complete a single task. Viticci thinks iPads are the makings of real professional grade devices, but their full potential awaits unlocking by further development of Apple’s software and third-party apps.
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“Professional grade” of course is a subjective categorization to a considerable degree. Lenovo has applied it to its laptops and Ultrabooks, and with some justification, given the ThinkPad’s enduring cachet with enterprise and other professional users — partly a holdover from the brand’s IBM heritage.
General Motors’ GMC Truck division has used effectively “Professional Grade” as a marketing slogan for the past dozen years, even though most GMC models are simply slightly restyled, “badge-engineered” clones of corresponding Chevrolet truck and SUV models.
GMC U.S.marketing vice president Tony DiSalle has been quoted insisting that “The definition of professional grade is vehicles with capabilities that exceed your expectations,” which would be a subjective value-judgment, and still doesn’t explain why a GMC Sierra pickup or Terrain SUV is more “professional grade” than an essentially identical-under-the-skin Chevy Silverado or Equinox.
To be fair to Apple, they haven’t explicitly marketed the 128 GB iPad as a “Pro” device a la the MacBook Pro laptops or Mac Pro tower desktops, but the implication was certainly there in Apple’s press release that the company would like the new model to be taken seriously by enterprise and power users. Senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing Philip Schiller pointedly commented that “With twice the storage capacity and an unparalleled selection of over 300,000 native iPad apps, enterprises, educators and artists have even more reasons to use iPad for all their business and personal needs,” mentioning that “the iPad continues to have a significant impact on business, with virtually all of the Fortune 500 and over 85 percent of the Global 500 currently deploying or testing iPad [who] will also benefit greatly from having the choice of an iPad with more storage capacity.” No doubt they will, but it’s still going to take more than a higher capacity flash module to make the iPad substantively professional grade — a serious tool for pro users who highly value their time, and therefore productivity and efficiency.
On the other hand, Microsoft’s just-released Surface Pro tablet PC does qualify as a bona fide professional grade platform. It runs the full desktop version of Windows 8, and therefore a vast array of current and legacy Windows productivity apps. It supports real multitasking, multiple open windows, and file system access. It’s powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and ships with 4GB of system RAM. Also in its favor is that the Surface Pro supports the external pointing devices some of us still prefer for precision and speed in production work along with external keyboards. It offers decent connectivity via standard I/O ports including USB 3.0 devices like external hard drives and USB flash drives, and also has a microSDXC card slot that lets you store up to 64GB of additional content. The Surface Pro isn’t a perfect solution by any means. As a tablet, it’s relatively heavy, more expensive, and has miserable battery life compared with the iPad.
Apple CEO Tim Cook criticized the Surface Pro as being a compromise device — neither fish nor fowl — but that’s kind of the point for those of us who would like to see the iPad become a more versatile and generally capable tool that really could replace a laptop as well continuing to provide specifically tablet advantages. It remains to be seen how much traction the Surface Pro can establish with enterprise users, but I’m anticipating that it will be significant, and the iPad is also going to be facing stiffer competition from PC Ultrabook laptops as well, with Intel mandating touchscreen support in the Ultrabook spec. for units powered by the forthcoming next-generation “Haswell” processor family, that will offer more speed along with lower power consumption and heat generation, and touchscreen Ultrabooks expected to start around $599, which is definitely in the iPad’s price point ballpark.
CNET’s Dan Farber cites market analysis firm Forrester predicting that 200 million workers will be lining up to buy a Windows tablet, and that the Surface Pro is apparently just what businesses want in what was formerly known as the desktop computer, and that the 128GB iPad doesn’t satisfy users who want multitasking, multiuser access and other productivity features,
We can hope that the new competition might kick Apple into developing a real professional grade iPad. Blogger Shawn Blanc thinks Apple does want to improve iOS by removing some of the friction and frustration currently experienced with iCloud, maps, and more, and to have the iOS regarded as a professional-grade operating system, worthy of real work. He notes that there’s still a lot of skepticism about the iPad as being ready to serve as a legitimate work machine, but expresses confidence that Apple will enhance the iPad’s professional viability. I hope he’s right.
More indication that Apple is beginning to take iPad professional grade seriously is an AppleBitch report last week that Apple may finally be preparing to offer full USB 3.0 support for the iPad , and is looking to recruit individuals for USB testing on new iOS and iPod product lines — posting ads for a Senior Software Quality Engineer (USB) to join the USB Connectivity Compliance QA Team. The successful candidate is expected to have knowledge of high speed bus device testing including SuperSpeed USB 3.0 as well as USB 2.0. Adding USB 3.0 connectivity would be one of the key elements necessary to qualify the iPad as professional grade.
As for multi-window screen views, it’s hard to deduce whether Apple will be willing to compromise on its thus far dogged insistence on a full-screen, one app at a time model for the iOS, which it seems to be also promoting in OS X with Lion and Mountain Lion. Better than nothing would be to at least have better support for multiple open documents within a single application that can be switched among without having to close one to open another. One can sort of do this using Dropbox and apps that link to it directly like PlainText and Nebulous Notes, but there’s still too much time lag in switching documents. TextWrangler on OS X is an example of what I’m thinking of, with its ability to switch among multiple open documents using a list in a slide-out subwindow drawer. Still no good for dragging and dropping between documents, but it would be a step in the right direction.
I don’t dispute that those of us who would much prefer to have a real iPad Pro as opposed to jumping ship to a Surface Pro or a touchscreen Ultrabook will likely have to settle for compromising on some of our ideal professional tablet wishlist, but Apple is going to have to seriously address our needs or there are bound to be many defections.
Another imponderable at this point is how long it will take for an iPad Pro to hit the market, should they decide to make one. As noted, much will depend on what comes with iOS 7 and beyond. On the hardware side, the current scuttlebutt is that development of the iPad 5, which Piper Jaffray Analyst and Apple-watcher Gene Munster thinks will be released at an Apple April special event, is being concentrated mostly on slimming down the full-sized iPad making it more closely resemble the iPad mini — not a design and engineering focus especially consistent with adding more professional grade capabilities. The iPad 5 should also get a faster A7 chip, and adding a USB 3.0 port would at least be a signal of good intentions. As for a real iPad Pro, I’m guessing 2014 at the earliest, should Apple decide to produce a serious professional grade tablet.
In summary, I don’t think this would necessarily require an iPad able to run OS X or having to have a Core i processor. I think the iPad and iOS could be fixed to reasonably address most or all of their current deficiencies as outlined above, without radically compromising the machine’s attractiveness as a tablet. If Apple can acheive that magic, Surface Pro and touchscreen Ultrabooks should have something to worry about.